"Of all the neighbors, Iran has the most leverage in Iraq. Iran has provided arms, financial support and training for Shi'ite militias. There are also reports that Iran has supplied improvised explosive devices to groups - including Sunni insurgents - that attack US forces..." - The Iraq Study Group Report, December 2006 Among other disturbing conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, the notion of a strange alliance between Iran and Sunni insurgents, led by al-Qaida, seemed especially alarming. The reports of a rapprochement between the two first appeared during this summer's war in Lebanon, and by the time the Baker-Hamilton report was published, it had became a widely discussed issue in research and in the media. Had the two groups temporarily put aside their longtime ideological differences to create a united Shi'ite-Sunni jihadi front? And how did this go together with the sectarian Shi'ite-Sunni violence in Iraq, where ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods had already become a common phenomenon? Although al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq continue to butcher their Shi'ite countrymen, proclaiming them "apostates," it currently seems that at least on the organizational level, the group's leaders do not see any harm in strategic cooperation with Iran. This started in the early 1990s when Iran helped train al-Qaida fighters. Iran was also suspected of helping al-Qaida carry out the 1996 bombings in Daharan, Saudi Arabia, which took the lives of 19 Americans. Additionally, several al-Qaida fugitives found asylum in Teheran after the September 11 attacks. Why would al-Qaida want a rapprochement with Iran? "One of the reasons is that its leaders are afraid to become isolated in Iraq, if the reconciliation talks between Shi'ites and Sunnis succeed," said Dr. Eli Karmon, an international terrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Iran, which has always called on Muslims to unite to battle Israel and its Western allies - a call that was renewed during this summer's war in Lebanon - has over the years supported a variety of terror organizations, both Shi'ite and Sunni. But it has had reservations about al-Qaida, both because of its extreme anti-Shi'ism and out of fear of its competition for the leadership of the global jihad. However, Western intelligence, the Daily Telegraph revealed earlier this month, now believes that Iran is cultivating a new generation of al-Qaida leaders who will be ready to work closely with Teheran and eventually take over the organization. The newspaper, citing sources in Western intelligence agencies, said that ties between Iran and al-Qaida had recently become quite close, especially since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president last year. (At the same time, between 2001-2002, Iran helped the Americans fighting the al-Qaida-sponsored Taliban government in Afghanistan. Teheran had never been on good terms with the Taliban government, but the relations deteriorated even more after the brutal murder of 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar i-Sharif in 1998 by the Taliban.) At the end of July, a statement on one al-Qaida-related Web site said that "al-Qaida fully supports the struggle of Hizbullah and is ready to provide help in the form of funds, ammunition and fighters." Since no al-Qaida leader signed the statement, its authenticity was originally doubted. A few days later, however, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin-Laden's deputy, made a televised speech in which he said that the group would respond to the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. On September 11, he issued another statement in which he called on Lebanese Muslims "not to surrender to Western pressure and to organize a popular jihadi war on Israel and the West." In neither statement did he mention Hizbullah or differentiate between Shi'ites and Sunnis, and Zawahari also started an Internet discussion of the possibility of a temporary cease-fire between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Dr. Reuven Paz, director of PRISM - the Project for Research of Islamist Movements at the Interdisciplinary Center, said that "in principle, al-Qaida supporters oppose Hizbullah; they believe Shi'ites are heretics who must be fought." So could the rapprochement between al-Qaida and Iran and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah be one of the less desirable outcomes of the war in Lebanon? Karmon said that this kind of sudden and unnatural coalition is quite possible in the Arab and Muslim world: "For example, it's not quite clear why the Islamic Republic of Iran is backing the Alawite-led Ba'athist Syria. Also the connection between Damascus and Hizbullah should not be taken for granted. If anything, Syria's support of Amal [another Shi'ite movement in Lebanon] is understandable, since its leader, Musa Sadr, recognized the Alawites to be true Shi'ites, and not a sect. "On the same note, the alliance between Sunni Hamas and Iran is not a given - it's a strategic coalition, and it's important to remember that although Teheran gives full backing to the Hamas-led [Palestinian Authority] government, it also supported the attacks of Islamic Jihad against [Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh's cabinet, playing a double game based on its own interests in the region." As for Shi'ite-Sunni rapprochement, Karmon doesn't see it as an entirely new development. "Bin Laden has said on numerous occasions that he is interested in uniting the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, so they could fight together," he said. "And in 2005 Zawahiri wrote a letter in which he mentioned that al-Qaida in Iraq should stop the attacks against Shi'ites so that the situation of al-Qaida people in Iran would not be harmed." WHILE THE leaders and the ideologues of al-Qaida still deliberate the pros and cons of cooperation with the Shi'ites, and in particular with Iran, an important shift in public opinion in the Sunni Muslim world occurred following the war in Lebanon. According to a study by the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Egyptians consider Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah the most popular and important Arab politician, followed by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Ahmadinejad. Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians also think of Nasrallah as a hero, comparing him to Saladin, the conqueror of Jerusalem. In the beginning of September, a Lebanese Web site affiliated with Hizbullah said that a large delegation of Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists left for Beirut to "congratulate the great Hassan Nasrallah" for his "tremendous victory, that makes every Arab and every Muslim proud." During the war, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered the largest Islamist organization in the Middle East, repeatedly expressed their support for Nasrallah and his organization. The Indonesian Jamaa al-Islamiya and leaders of its Malaysian affiliate made similar statements, as did Somali Islamists. In addition, hundreds of Saudi, Yemeni, Egyptian and Jordanian young people wrote blogs calling for their religious leaders to overcome their antagonism to Shi'ites and join hands "for the sake of Palestine and Lebanon." A fatwa (religious ruling) by Saudi Sheikh Ahmed Jabarin against the support of Hizbullah by Sunnis caused a real storm of emotions in Saudi Arabia, where the Shi'ite minority is often persecuted. "This fatwa goes against the spirit of brotherhood among all Muslims. It doesn't matter at all whether we are Sunnis or Shi'ites," wrote Saudi blogger Hamada. Other bloggers, who identified themselves as Sunnis, wrote that they were ready to travel to Lebanon and join the Hizbullah fighters or to perpetrate a suicide attack on Israeli soldiers in the name of Hizbullah. Paz said that these emotions may have come from the dissatisfaction of Saudis at the policy of their government toward Hizbullah. While in the early days of the war, the Saudi regime harshly criticized Nasrallah's actions and, together with Egypt and Jordan, led the anti-Hizbullah front in the Arab League, supporting Hizbullah became fashionable among elite Saudi young people. Although it is still premature to talk about Shi'ite-Sunni reconciliation, especially considering the rivers of blood spilled daily in Iraq, one cannot deny that, at least where ideology and strategic cooperation are concerned, the ice between these religious groups was broken in the summer of 2006. WHILE A full strategic alliance between Iran and al-Qaida is still work in progress, it is already a nightmare for Western intelligence organizations. "On the level of intelligence organizations, specialists agree that an Iran-al-Qaida alliance could become a reality," Karmon said, presenting the new axis of evil in the Middle East - "Iran, Iranian-backed Shi'ite Iraq, Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the PA, its most recent member." He called it "the axis of destabilization." "Al-Qaida is interested in destabilizing Iraq, Iran is interested in destabilizing Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah have the same interest in Lebanon as does Hamas in the PA," he said, referring to the Baker-Hamilton report, which underlines the negative role played by Iran and Syria in Iraq. But unlike Baker and Hamilton, Karmon doesn't believe the US should seek talks with Iran and Syria to improve the situation in Iraq and in the region. "I believe that the attempt to talk to Iran and Syria in order to achieve certain goals in Iraq is a kind of a wishful thinking. Iranians are ready to talk to the US, but they will not renounce their nuclear program. They are convinced that the Americans are so entangled in Iraq, they can do nothing today. "As for Syria - I do not believe that it's ready to part from the Iran-Hizbullah alliance today either. It thinks Iran will soon have nuclear capabilities, and there is nothing the US can do about it. Also, economically it needs Lebanon much more than it needs the Golan Heights, so in the near future Damascus most probably will stick with Hizbullah and Iran. Another possible consequence of dealing with Iran is that in case of sanctions, the regime will resort to terror, and the alliance between Teheran and al-Qaida will become more significant." Neither option bodes well for the West and its allies in the Middle East. But could the growing cooperation between the radical Sunni and Shi'ite Islamists lead to the formation of another regional strategic alliance - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, since all of them now have a common enemy? "Personally, I hope the potential members of this counter-axis will be able to overcome their difficulties and join forces in this battle," Karmon said. "Certainly there are numerous problems with such an alliance that we have to keep in mind. Until now Egypt has been playing a kind of double game with Hamas - in fact it made it a full partner to negotiations. "Another problem with such an coalition is that the Arab regimes cannot present it as a full alliance because of the pressure from the opposition in their countries," said Karmon. "Perhaps this is why their leaders are pushing for the acceptance of the Saudi peace plan by the Israelis and the Palestinians, since then it will be easier to talk about some kind of alliance."